The contents of libraries are rapidly migrating to the digital format. Now you can access collections of Greek inscriptions online, instead of going to the library to consult the venerable IG volumes, books so large that they must be stored horizontally on library shelves. I often think of the labor it took to typeset and print these huge folios, with their Greek fonts and their drawings of the inscribed stones. The search feature in the digital version is great. But it’s not the same. So I understand why Jennet likes to visit the physical books from time to time.
19. Over Wrath Grace Shall Abound
“How are you, Jonny? You look well,” said Laura Livingston. She was talking to Sebelius on a Skype connection from New York, where she was spending the Fall working for a wealthy book collector who had endowed the Porteous professorship, her chair in English at Parnell.
“Well, Livingston, what have you got to say for yourself?” He was still angry at her for casting the deciding vote at the department level to give Gerhard Dahl tenure. With Dahl tenured, the Literacy and Rhetoric faction would have more faculty slots than Literature. It was the beginning of the end. How could he be expected to stem the tide of idiocy and mediocrity when the barbarians were storming the gates, and people like Livingston were doing their damnedest to let them in?
“Jonny, listen to me carefully. I received a call the other day from Gerhard Dahl.”
“So?” Why should he want to hear the details of their mutual admiration?
“Gerhard said that Bill Jenko’s rigging the graduate review. All the outside review team members in Rhetoric are being told that Parnell is about to shut down the Rhetoric program.”
“But that’s total crap. If anything, it’s Literature that’s under attack,” he said, outraged.
“Yes. But by playing the victims, they’ve got the reviewers on their side. Lynn’s our Chair, and she’s a Shakespeare scholar, practically a symbol of the old guard. They’re claiming that she’s out to get them, and they’re feeding the reviewers all the talking points before they even arrive.”
Sebelius put his head in his hands. Oh shit. “Wait a minute. Dahl told you this? Why should he do that? He’s one of them!”
“Figure it out, Sherlock,” said Livingston, sounding exasperated. “He’s grateful to me because I supported his tenure case. He doesn’t approve of this baloney either.”
Sebelius stared at her. He’d scorned her as naïve and idealistic. “How far that little candle throws his beams,” he quoted. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
“Thanks, Jonny,” she said gratefully. “I knew you’d understand some day.”
“With this warning, I might be able to parry Jenko’s attack, but I don’t see my way to a riposte,” he said. Swetnam’s fourth law was To Take the Time, to seize the opportunity of attack whenever, and in whatever form it came.
“I do,” said Laura. “Gerhard got an email from one of the reviewers, who happens to be the partner of his dissertation advisor at Penn. He asked Gerhard what the fuck was going on at Parnell and why the Rhetoric program was trying to rig the review.”
Oh yes. Sweet merciful heavens, yes. “And?” he asked, holding his breath.
“And he forwarded it to me. I’ve just hit the send button and it should be in your box any second now.”
“Mom, are you sure there’s nothing I can bring you?” Jennet was touched by Kyle’s obvious concern for her, but it made her feel old. “No, honey, I’m fine. June Jamieson gave me a ride home and picked up some groceries. I’ve canceled my classes for the rest of the week, and I’m going to watch old movies and take pain meds.” She’d had an unexpected call from Bill Jenko too, offering his assistance with anything she needed, and bringing up the topic of Jonathan Sebelius again. He’d repeated a litany of gossipy anecdotes about Jonathan’s rudeness to various women on campus, and was clearly disappointed when she flatly refused to file a discrimination complaint.
“Okay,” said Kyle. “Be sure to call me if you need help. Love you.”
Stupid Greek inscriptions, she thought. And stupid me. Once again, she replayed the scene in her mind.
On her trip to the seventh floor of the library that morning, she’d seen the fascicle of the Inscriptiones Graecae she needed under a heavy pile of other volumes, lying horizontally on a top shelf. She brought over a sturdy chair and stood on it, but then had no place to lay the books she removed. Instead of safely climbing down with them, a few at a time, she’d tried to hold forty pounds in one hand while reaching for the item she needed with the other. She put a foot wrong, toppled, and fell. As she lay there, knowing her left ankle was swelling and most likely broken, she cast a sour glance at the expensive volumes of inscriptions littering the floor. In spite of the pain, she forced herself to crawl around, gathering them into a tidy pile so the library staff wouldn’t see the full extent of her folly. Then, as the swelling reached alarming proportions, she drew her phone from her purse and called the circulation desk. Finally, she endured the humiliation of being collected by paramedics and carted in a wheelchair down the elevator to a waiting ambulance.
The only bright spot was that the doctors gave her a velcro brace instead of an old-fashioned cast, so that she could remove it to bathe. Still, she was not to put any weight on the foot for several weeks, and she would have to use crutches. Sighing, she went to her laptop and sent a quick message to her hot pool companion Renée, telling her not to worry if she didn’t see Jennet for a while.
It was oddly pleasant at first, staying home by herself. The pain medication prevented her from doing any serious work, so she watched TV, read comic novels, slept, and ate. By Wednesday she began to feel restless, and sat staring out her picture window at the bare trees. It was December, and winter had set in. She amused herself by cutting up a couple of pilly old wool sweaters, long discarded by Kyle, that she hadn’t brought herself to throw away. She fashioned the sleeves into big, warm “socks” for her brace-covered ankle and foot. There had been frost the last couple of mornings, and the forecast predicted snow. Usually she shoveled the snow herself, but that was out of the question. If it’s heavy, I’ll have to call someone to plow the driveway. Tomorrow she would need to venture out for the first time, to buy some groceries.
Jennet awoke late the next morning to the sound of a snow shovel scraping her neighbor’s sidewalk, and knew the snow had been heavy. She got up, laboriously bathed and dressed herself, and went to the window. Surprised, she saw that her own driveway and walk had already been cleared. She went to make breakfast, feeling touched. Some good Samaritan on the street had seen her arriving home with the ankle brace, and shoveled her snow.
She was feeling much better today, less groggy, and antsy to get out of the house. But it was an inauspicious day to go out on crutches. She’d have to wait until the afternoon sun had burned away all the ice. The last thing she needed was another fall.
Around three o’clock, she finally decided it was safe to go out. She gathered her reusable shopping bags, tied on her wool “sock,” put on her coat and scarf, and carefully got in her Honda, thankful that it wasn’t her right foot in the brace. She used her remote to open the garage door, and looked in the rearview mirror to begin backing out. Jonathan Sebelius’ green Land Rover, she saw with surprise, was blocking her driveway, and he was getting out of his car. She sat there with the car still running, as he marched up to her window and stood with his arms crossed, waiting. She rolled down the window. He bent and his sky blue eyes, almost level with hers, took in the shopping bags and the crutches.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“Shopping. And hello to you too, Jonathan.”
“You’re not going anywhere. I’ll get whatever you need.”
“But I have cabin fever,” she argued, a little annoyed at the peremptory tone he was taking. “I’ve been sitting inside for three days. How did you know about my accident, anyway?”
“Word travels fast in the Wellness Center. Everyone notices if a regular doesn’t show up. And your white-haired friend has a loud voice.” So it was Renée, she thought as he told her, “Get out. You’re going straight back inside. It’s a good thing I came when I did. You’re worse than my father! I bet you’re still on painkillers,” he added accusingly.
It’s true. She should have called someone rather than trying to drive herself. He opened the door and she meekly took his proffered hand, then stood there while he reached in and retrieved her crutches, still grumbling that she must have lost her mind. He escorted her inside, settled her on the couch, held out his hand for the shopping list, and left.
Sebelius’ emotions veered wildly between exasperation, desire, and doubt. The last time he’d set eyes on the Woman was weeks ago, at his fencing tournament. Right before his first bout, he’d seen her sitting in the bleachers, tête-à-tête with his father. He was gripped with chill fear that he might perform poorly in front of her. Yet when he won, he felt more elation at the victory than he had in years. “What did she think of the bout?” he’d asked Stefan, trying to sound as though it didn’t matter.
“She didn’t give me permission to repeat the conversation,” said the old man, but under duress he finally conceded that the Woman thought Jonathan was very impressive. Very impressive.
Then he’d gone to the pool yesterday and heard the white-haired woman telling everyone she knew about Jennet Thorne’s accident: she’d broken her ankle and wouldn’t be able to come to the gym for weeks. Raised in Minnesota, where his father had sent him to shovel the drives and walks of any indisposed neighbor as a matter of course, the first thing he’d thought of was the weather forecast. He’d shoveled her drive early that morning, while she was still asleep. And when he came after work to check on whether she had everything she needed, what did he find? The Woman, trying to drive herself to the supermarket, obviously still high on Vicodin or whatever they’d given her.
Minnesota Lutherans were people of few words. They found a certain relief in a crisis, because it allowed them scope for action, without the need for extensive discussion. He was only doing what any decent colleague would do, Sebelius argued with himself. Of course he must do whatever he could to help. It was only right, after all she’d done for him. His father would approve.
He arrived at the Funny Bunny supermarket and methodically ticked the items off her list. Milk. Eggs. Fresh spinach. Bread. Bacon. Lucky Charms? he thought disgustedly, rolling his eyes. He hoped nobody from work spotted him with that item in his cart. At least she didn’t have anything really embarrassing on the list, like feminine items. Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. Suddenly, he remembered leaning his head against hers as he looked down her shirt and palmed her tits. He’d recognized that scent in her hair, but couldn’t place it. Her tits… No. Don’t go there.
He went through the self-service line, packing the groceries in her two reusable bags, and drove back to the ranch house on Innisfree Street. It’s a good thing she has a ranch, he thought, wondering if the washer and dryer were in the basement. She opened the door for him, moving awkwardly on her crutches. “I didn’t even think to give you the money,” she said, holding out some bills.
“Let me get these things into the kitchen.” He carried the bags through the front door, noticing how pleasant her home was. It was full of books and pictures, comfortable, slightly cluttered, unpretentious. It reminded him of his childhood home in Maple Grove, a suburb of Minneapolis. There were no frills or furbelows. From the furnishings alone, he could not have guessed whether a woman or a man lived there. He opened the refrigerator and unpacked all the items that were perishable, leaving the rest on the countertop.
About halfway through this operation, she finally reached the kitchen and put the money on the counter, looking at him silently. He pocketed the bills. I should be going now. Her hair was standing up in little tufts again, as though she’d been running her hands through it. Her hair… smelled like baby shampoo.
Jennet Thorne. Jennet. Her name is Jennet. He’d never allowed himself to call her by name, never even spoken her given name aloud. A jennet was a type of horse, quite widely bred in Europe during the seventeenth century and before. Jennets were Spanish horses, small and well-muscled, known for their good dispositions. They gave a smooth ride. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to fight the urges welling up within him, inexorable and overwhelming. He wanted to mount her, to ride her, to rest his weight on her, to feel her sweating and lathering beneath him. And then he wanted to hold her naked in his arms, while the sweat slowly cooled and evaporated.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” The quote is from the Merchant of Venice, and I first encountered it in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie has stolen a very special piece of candy from the factory, but as he and his uncle are leaving, he returns it, placing it on Mr. Wonka’s desk. We see Gene Wilder’s hand moving to enclose the little object, and we hear his voice say “So shines a good dead in a weary world.”
Part of the magic of this movie is the screenplay by David Seltzer, which is peppered with literary allusions. It is difficult to imagine improving on Roald Dahl, but Wonka would not be my Wonka without his love of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Ogden Nash. Seltzer did, however, change the key word “naughty” (which had a more serious meaning in Shakespeare’s day) to “weary,” suggesting Wonka’s world-weariness, the reason he has sealed himself in his factory like a hermit.
Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka deserves a post all its own. But let’s just say that when I watched the movie, I was riveted by this scene and the words, without having any idea of their source.